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Women in Business Q&A: Andrea Jung, President and Chief Executive Officer, Grameen America

23/01/2016 16:46 | Updated 25 January 2016
  • Laura Dunn Social Media and Communications Professional, Founder and Editor of Political Style, Director of LED Media, Journalist and Author

Andrea Jung is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Grameen America, the fastest-growing microfinance organization in the United States. Ms. Jung was appointed by Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus, Grameen's Founder and Chairman, to the position in April 2014. She joined with the goal of scaling the organization to solve economic issues for women and their families across the country.

Ms. Jung is the former Chairman and CEO of Avon Products, Inc., where she served as CEO from 1999 through April 2012, and as Chairman from 2001 through December 2012. The longest serving female chief executive in the Fortune 500, she is respected as a trailblazer for women's empowerment.

Throughout her professional career, Ms. Jung ranked consistently among the top leaders on lists including Fortune magazine's "Most Powerful Women in Business," Forbes magazine's "Most Powerful Women in the World," and Financial Times' "Top Women in World Business."

Ms. Jung is a graduate of Princeton University. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the General Electric Company, Apple, Inc., and Daimler AG. She also serves on the Committee for Economic Development, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan American think tank.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
So many of my past experiences have shaped my approach, but certainly the values and principles instilled in me from my childhood have contributed greatly to who I am today. Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, I was taught perseverance. Even when I first graduated Princeton and began my career working at a low-level department store job, my mother told me that walking away just wasn't an option and reminded me that there are lessons to learn, no matter how high or low your role is. She was right: I stayed the course and moved up the ladder. That's the attitude that I've brought to each job I've had and every challenge I've faced.

How has your tenure as CEO of Avon aided your experience at Grameen America?
I'll start from the beginning. When David McConnell founded Avon in 1886, the company provided one of the first opportunities for women to work outside of the home. McConnell saw an opportunity in enlisting women to sell to other women as independent sales representatives - a truly empowering notion at a time when women were so seldom given their own economic opportunities.

It was certainly an incredible privilege to be at the helm of a company where the commitment to women was there from the beginning and I knew that empowering women would always be my calling. In that respect, Avon was the perfect prelude to my time here at Grameen America.
Grameen America is an organization wholly guided by the philosophy that each and every woman can reach their full economic potential if they are just given the right tools. Inspired by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus's visionary work in Bangladesh providing small loans to impoverished women so that they could start their own businesses, Grameen America brings that same model to cities all across the United States. We expand financial inclusion to women by providing microloans, savings and credit-building services to women living below the poverty line. This allows them to start their own businesses and create better lives for their families.

What do you think is the single greatest challenge facing low-income women in America today?
Certainly income inequality is the top issue that faces our nation's low-income women. As a country, we've reached a moment in which leaders on both sides of the aisle agree that something needs to be done to ensure our most vulnerable populations have the ability to move up the ladder.

This deepening inequality has exacerbated the wage and lending gaps for women - making it that much harder for hard-working women to get ahead. Grameen America addresses this gender inequality head-on with a simple and powerful solution. We provide small loans to women in poverty, requiring no collateral or credit history. We help them open their first bank accounts and build financial identity. Within six months of joining the program, a woman with no prior credit history can establish a credit score of 670 which allows her access to the financial mainstream for the first time. One microloan at a time, I believe we can make a real dent in the inequality that holds so many women back.

How is Grameen America making a real difference advancing the lives of women?
The numbers truly speak for themselves. Since Grameen America was founded in 2008, over $380 million has been invested in more than 64,000 women entrepreneurs in eleven cities across the country. That's eleven cities that have seen thousands of women become engines of growth in their local economies - women who otherwise would not have had this opportunity.

The best part of running this organization is seeing the impact beneath the 30,000-foot view. I've had the privilege of meeting the most inspiring, hard-working women who have benefited from our organization. Take, for example, Susana. Just a few years ago, Susana was forced to flee a situation of domestic violence and was living on the New York City subway with her son. When she joined Grameen, she used her first $1,500 loan to rent a chair at a hair salon. Gradually, as she returned for larger loans, she was able to buy her own salon. Today, the storefront is bustling and she employs four other women from her neighborhood. In my eyes, that's the perfect example of the material difference Grameen America is making in communities across the country.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am asked this question all the time, and my answer is always the same: they can both win, but not on the same day. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss some important meetings to care for my children, or miss some of my children's events when work needed me. I'll never forget the time I was invited to attend a lunch at the White House on the same day my daughter had an important event. Ultimately, I realized that President Bush would not remember whether or not I attended the lunch, but my daughter would. To me, it's about taking it one day and a time, and making sure you don't miss the moments that matter the most.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The importance of reinvention is one of the most significant - and most difficult - lessons I've learned in my career. You have to fire yourself on Friday and rehire yourself on Monday. Each week is another opportunity for you to approach your position, your project, your company, your cause, with a fresh eye. There is nothing worse than making the same mistake twice, or wedding yourself to a decision that is no longer the right decision just because you made it. You have to be willing to hold yourself to these high standards in order to succeed.

What advice can you offer to women who would like to pursue a career with purpose?
I had always wanted to do something with my life that had a greater social purpose. When I graduated from college and declared to my parents that I wanted to join the Peace Corps, they told me that while they admired my calling to service, I had to get a "real job." At that point, I thought I had to make a choice between business and purpose.

As my career went on, I was fortunate enough to get to Avon where I found that you could combine the two. My advice to women who are early in their careers - or perhaps looking to restart on a new path - is to find an organization that lights the fire in you. Something with a purpose that you can identify with and then, trust me, you will never "work" another day in your life.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Especially for women, mentorship is so important. I have been lucky to have had several incredible mentors throughout my career. I'm grateful that, to this day, they are there to offer support and honest feedback, and to lead by example. It's not always easy to hear the tough stuff, but the best mentor is one that cares enough to point you in the right direction - or away from the wrong one.
I want to emphasize for younger women especially that mentorship is a two-way street. The relationship is only as rewarding as you make it. It is up to you to take initiative to seek guidance and support.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many. When I was named CEO of Avon in 1999, I was one of only a handful of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Seventeen years later, that number has increased to 21. What I find truly remarkable and inspiring are the female leaders in male-dominated industries. Women like Mary Barra at General Motors or Ginni Rometty at IBM. Having women CEOs in these sectors was unimaginable seventeen years ago. They make me very optimistic for the future of women in business.

There are also so many inspiring women in the philanthropic world. Melinda Gates is ensuring women and girls get fair access to education and health. Laurene Powell Jobs is launching a revolutionary campaign to re-think the way we educate our children. Judith Rodin is taking action to usher in a new era of inclusive economic growth. These women are truly seizing an opportunity to make the world a better place for future generations.

And considering the tumult that the world is facing right now, I have to also say that Angela Merkel has been a personal role model of mine over the last few years. There is no one that better exemplifies courage, bold decision-making and effectiveness than the Chancellor. In the face of economic uncertainty, growing security challenges, and a refugee crisis, her fearlessness is unparalleled. I hope our young women leaders everywhere are taking note!

What have been the highlights and challenges during your tenure at Grameen America?
When I joined Grameen America less than two years ago, the organization had just over 28,000 women borrowers. Fast forward to today; Grameen America has served over 64,000 women. We could fill Madison Square Garden three times over with the women we've reached. That's pretty remarkable!

Of course any organization undergoing this rapid growth, whether it is non-profit or for-profit, encounters challenges. Bringing Grameen America to scale and sustainability is my number one priority. I feel it is my responsibility not only to our current borrowers, but also to this next generation of borrowers that we are beginning to serve, to put Grameen America on a pathway towards being a self-sustaining community financial institution.

What do you want Grameen America to accomplish in the next year?
My hope is that Grameen America will empower thousands more low-income women around this country to take hold of their futures and realize their dreams. I know the hardships these women face and I know that it can often feel as though there is no path forward, no opportunity for economic empowerment. I truly believe that with a hand up, not a hand out, women can be the engines of economic growth in cities all over the United States. When we invest in their ideas, we are in turn investing in their success, their families, their communities, and our country.

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